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Catherina Cunnane
Catherina Cunnane
Catherina Cunnane hails from a sixth-generation drystock and specialised pedigree suckler enterprise in Co. Mayo. She currently holds the positions of editor and general manager at That's Farming, having joined the firm during its start-up phase in 2015.
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Nuffield Scholar: The role of milk screening for disease within an effective herd health system

As part of a new series, That’s Farming interviews 2019 Nuffield Scholars.

First up, Catherina Cunnane speaks to Ailish Moriarty, who has over 16 years’ experience working in the food industry.

How long have you been involved in agriculture?

I come from a farming background in west Limerick and work at home on the dairy farm in Annascaul, Kerry. Also, I am working as a milk quality manager for Kerry Agribusiness.

I qualified with a Bachelor of Science (Honours) in Food Technology from University College Cork. In 2011, I returned to college to complete a Master of Business Administration at the Institute of Technology Tralee.

What influenced your decision to apply for a Nuffield Scholarship?

Working on the family farm and meeting with farmers daily in my role with Kerry Agribusiness, I am very immersed in agriculture.

If a health issue arises, the farmer can be firefighting, and lack of clarity can exist regarding causes, treatment etc.

One of the tools which could potentially detect endemic disease is bulk and individual milk screening. I wanted to learn more about this topic and identify best international practice in herd health monitoring and surveillance. In my opinion, a Nuffield Scholarship was the platform which could enable this.

What was your topic?

‘Assess the Role of Milk Screening for Disease within the Development of an Effective Herd Health System’

What did your experience as a Nuffield Scholar entail?

I applied for the scholarship in July 2018 with a two-stage interview process in August and September. In brief, the overall scholarship award was €14,000; this bursary is a contribution towards the cost of travel and accommodation, which will be incurred by scholars for their international travel.

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In summary, my Nuffield scholarship has taken me to Iowa, the USA for the Nuffield Contemporary Scholars Conference in March 2019. To Singapore, Philippines, Hong Kong, China, Germany, Ireland, Washington, and Texas as part of my Global Focus Program in June/ July 2019 for 6 weeks.

For my personal travel, I tried to be very specific in the countries to visit. Therefore, I targeted countries which I felt were leaders in herd health monitoring and surveillance. I travelled to the Netherlands in April 2019, United Kingdom & Scotland in September 2019, and Denmark in October 2019.

Within the countries, I visited and all the influential people I have met, this gave me the foundation and inspiration for my report.

What were your key findings?
  • The need to be proactive in herd health management has never been more important particularly with the significant challenges with two major issues – climate change and antimicrobial resistance;
  • Secondly, much more focus must be placed on risk management and assessment. This can enable a shift from a reactive to a more preventative approach to herd health;
  • Thirdly, limitations can exist within milk testing methodology. Furthermore, it is important to be conscious of the sensitivity, specificity, and predictive values of the test. With frequent and repeat testing, combined with experience, these can be overcome;
  • The strength and importance of the farmer-vet relationship cannot be underestimated. To foster and develop this, the farmer needs to be willing to share herd information. The vet plays a crucial role in the design, interpretation, and communication of the on-farm testing programme. The vet needs to involve farmers in the decision-making process and align outcomes to the farmer’s goals and aspirations;
  • To protect and enhance farmers ability to sell milk products into global markets, the industry must adequately demonstrate that animal health is a priority on farms. Each stakeholder within the supply chain can play a role in demonstrating this; this could be about educating and supporting suppliers to implement more effective herd health systems on-farm;
  • Software tools are available which can enable streamlined capture and use of data. Our European counterparts have demonstrated leadership and best practice in this field;
  • Decision support must improve, templates are available which can stimulate a modification in reporting style and format so that results can be actionable and accountable;
  • Lastly, the future direction of milk and animal health screening will change, with milk-infrared spectrometry and precision technology being at the forefront.
What does your report recommend?

We face many regulatory challenges. To prepare for this and accelerate progress on effective herd health management, my key recommendations are:

  • All stakeholders – the committed farmer, the dairy industry and the engaged vet need to be at the table’ and co-design proactive herd health management programs. While the early adopters in the veterinary community have led the way in terms of a collaborative, knowledge-share approach, the wider community of vets must come on board & create further buy-in and adoption. One must not underestimate the strength and importance of the farmer-vet relationship. The vet can become a key influencer of scheme awareness and uptake;
  • As has been noted, all stakeholders must be vested. A clear, concise financial business model must be identified. This must be co-funded between the farmer and TASAH (Targeted Advisory Service on Animal Health);
  • Animal Health Ireland – Veterinary Risk Assessment and Management Plan (VRAMP) should be launched and become mandatory on all farms. This template has been successfully used for Irelands’ National BVD eradication and Johne’s Control Programme;
  • As well as that, a herd specific action plan & yearly schedule must be formulated. This would determine what milk screening / young stock serology tests are required;
  • The dairy industry must share roles and responsibilities & lead & empower to deliver better herd health outcomes. Milk purchasers could support on-farm risk assessments, and the milk purchaser could subsidise the cost of milk screening;
  • Furthermore, we need better decision support – development of simple, effective, user-friendly formats can guarantee follow-through;
  • We must fully utilise ICBF – the only farmer-owned national herd database in the world. All service providers within the industry must consistently promote this service and encourage more farmers to access the available support tools;
  • Also, new technologies like Milk Infra-Red Spectrometry and Precision Technology will evolve – the Irish dairy industry must embrace these.

Would you recommend a Nuffield Scholarship?

Yes, I definitely would – it takes sacrifice and commitment. However, if you are extremely passionate about a topic, which you believe will have a positive impact on Irish agriculture, then you should pursue a Nuffield Scholarship.

What was the most enjoyable & most difficult aspect of this experience?

In particular, I was overwhelmed by the welcome I received on my independent travel. People were so open and forthcoming with advice and information and sacrificed so much of their time. On the other hand, no doubt, leaving family for over 10 weeks was the most difficult.

Where is your next step?

Above all, I hope my report and findings can make a valuable contribution and improve the animal health and welfare of Irish herds. My aim is that this will help change farmer and industry mindset to be proactive rather than reactive to animal health.

Sum up your experience as a Nuffield Scholar

In summary, it was a fantastic unique experience to challenge oneself and fulfil my goal of trying to make a difference in Irish agriculture.

Overall, my aim was a focus on a study topic which could protect herd health and the sustainability and profitability of Irish dairy farms and industry.

Lunch and learn series 

Nuffield Ireland will host a week-long virtual ‘lunch and learn’ series, hosted by the returning 2019 Nuffield Scholars.

The lunchtime series will be free to attend and will feature a 10-minute presentation at 1.30 pm. Each day, scholars will outline the key findings of their report.

Ailish will present the findings of her studies at 1:30 pm on Monday (November 23rd) – See here.

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